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In My Marriage Money Was a Trap. After My Divorce It Was My Freedom

Credit - Illustration by Katie Kalupson for TIME

Four months after my divorce, I went to a party in New York City where a wine-drunk woman grilled me about my split. How did I manage? Did I get the house?

This line of questioning was not unfamiliar. In the aftermath of my divorce, a lot of women asked me how I’d done it, and at this party, flushed from wine myself, I told her honestly that I was broke. But, I added, I was happy. She looked at me skeptically and said, “Money is important.” I’d think of her two years later when I finally dug myself out of divorce debt.

When I married my husband at 22, I barely knew how to balance a checkbook (we still did that then), and I had no idea what a 401(k) was. Before we got married, when my father-in-law wanted to talk to us about money, I was a compliant pupil. He’d mapped out my husband’s annual salary for his new job as an engineer in Excel, walking us through how much we could spend. It was immediately clear to me that the two of them had already worked on this together. In the box marked “rent” was the correct figure for the apartment my husband was living in, the one I’d move into after the wedding. The spreadsheet also factored in payments for my college loans.

Read More: I Got Divorce. But My Family Is Still Whole

The power dynamic was clear – I had nothing; I knew nothing. And I would adhere to the rules of the budget because I was the one bringing in debt and no assets. The concepts my husband’s father talked us through were a blur: high-yield savings account, 401(k) matching, Roth IRAs. But other things came into sharp focus. He said my debt would have to be paid down immediately. Debt was shameful; you could tell by the way my husband and his father looked at each other. We’d use every penny of my job (and I was still unemployed) to pay it down and live entirely off my husband’s income until it was gone.

Here was how we were going to do that:

$10 a month for haircuts

$200 a month for groceries

$10 for personal items.

"How does that even work?" I said, too embarrassed to tell them tampons would cost more than $10 a month.

"Even cheap shampoo costs $5, and..." I was also thinking about makeup. Even the cheap stuff, which was all I had, could set you back $50, and I needed that if I was going to find a job to pay off my loans.

"The $10 a month accumulates," my husband explained like I was a toddler. "So, in five months, when you need to restock, you’ll have $50." Five months to make a bottle of Suave 2-in-1 last. This was the start of a pattern that would continue throughout our marriage: even when I made money, I didn’t have control of how it was spent.

Marriage has always been about money. The first marriages were alliances between families to strengthen economic ties. A woman exchanged for gifts to ally the two families, to ensure the continuity of inheritance and of course purity of blood. As Western culture evolved, marriage, still a contract, became about mutual understanding and affection. But laws governing the economic freedom of women were slow to catch up. Women couldn’t apply for mortgages or open credit cards in their own names until the 1970s.

Read More: Why I Stayed in a Marriage That Was Making Me Miserable

There is an enduring narrative that marriage is about love. That the guiding light of our unions is the sweep-me-off-my-feet romance depicted in movies. And we convince ourselves that what underpins our unions isn’t economic. But the reality is different than the fairy tales. People rarely date or marry outside their socioeconomic status, which reinforces privilege and class boundaries. Wealth inequality between married partners overwhelmingly favors the husband in a heterosexual relationship, which can leave the wife with little financial freedom and stuck in a relationship that can be uncomfortable or even dangerous. And while more and more women are out-earning their husbands, they are still in the minority. Women in the U.S. still earn only 82 cents to the male dollar, and mothers earn 74 cents on average to a father’s dollar. Even if a woman comes into a marriage earning the same as her husband, that equality drops off as women age. And while wives still manage the day-to-day expenses of grocery shopping, it’s men who retain the majority of financial control.

A 2021 YouGov poll found that 35% of women are completely or somewhat financially dependent on their partner, compared to 11% of men. And a Glamour survey found that one in three women have stayed in a relationship because they didn’t have the money to leave. A culture that underpays women is a culture that forces them into economic codependence and traps them when they want out. But no one wants to think about that when they are walking into a relationship – love is supposed to be bigger than all of that.

Read More: You're Fighting With Your Partner All Wrong

I knew money would be tight when I left. I didn’t have access to our joint account and had to set up a secret account to save money for a lawyer. I wrote marketing copy for extra money and would deposit the checks there. Despite this, I was poor during the divorce. Friends loaned me money for groceries. I ghost-wrote op-eds and wrote even more marketing copy. My parents bought my kids their Christmas gifts. Even then, my life mostly ran on nearly maxed-out credit cards.

Still, a few months after I moved out, I went to buy new mascara and realized how free I felt. If I wanted the $30 mascara, there would be no disapproval. No argument. No silent treatment until I relented and admitted I’d screwed up. It felt like a small thing, just mascara, but it was everything. While most women who divorce find themselves financially struggling, the majority don’t regret their decision. According to one study, 73% of divorced women are happier than they were when they were married, even if they were poorer.

A recent spate of books and articles argue for marriage as a solution for our financial woes, as women outside the heterosexual family structure do not do as well economically as those who are married, but what is often excluded from that conversation is the unpaid labor that allows a man to work all day. If marriage is a means of keeping and preserving wealth, it’s at least in part because often one partner performs the functions of cook, house cleaner, chauffeur, shopper, all without compensation. Even women who outearn their husbands still perform this unpaid labor at higher rates than male partners.

When my friend was divorcing his stay-at-home wife, his lawyer told him he should have paid her a salary. Paying her would have been a way to value her work and give her an income. And it would have amounted to less in alimony. When my friend told me this, I was stunned. Imagine: Paying a woman for her work would have benefited everyone in the end. It was certainly a far cry from my husband’s request during our divorce that I compensate him $10,000 for his contributions to my brain. I laughed and the joke became a punchline I employed in my group chats and on my lady dates. Until once, my friend Serena said, “You should have replied, ‘I wonder what my other body parts cost? My virginity?’ You should have charged him for damage to your uterus for having children.” I was sitting in her kitchen, watching her cook, and hearing her say a thing that cut me to my core because it was true. Is that all I was? Just a calculation?

Three years after my divorce, I sat down with a financial consultant named Stephanie, because I refused to talk to men about money. I was terrified, remembering the shame that the budget talks with my husband had given me.

I’d been recently fired from my job at a newspaper, the one I’d taken to level out my finances, and I knew my income would be inconsistent. I wanted a plan. I wanted to be able to feed my kids, but also still afford more than $10 a month for toiletries. I sat for two hours, explaining my business, my haphazard income and spending habits, feeling sick and a little ashamed. But eventually Stephanie began to smile.

"This is so exciting," she said. "You are making twice as much as you did three years ago, and next year, you’ll be making four times as much! You got this!" She was impressed by the fact I’d sold and written an original audiobook, while also freelancing, working full-time for the newspaper, and taking care of two kids. It was a lot of work that I was suddenly able to do because with 50/50 custody after the divorce, I was no longer the primary caretaker of our children. And without a spouse, I was no longer performing the unpaid mental and emotional labor I’d been doing for years. Free from the mental load, I had a lot of time to earn money and it was beginning to pay off.

“Girl, you know how to work hard,” she said. She was the kind of blonde woman who called you “girlfriend” and said “you go, girl” unironically. The kind of woman I just loved with my whole heart because I knew she meant every word of it. She told me I had this. And I did.

When we were done, I was relieved and angry. Angry that for so long money had been a cudgel used against me. Angry that I’d been told everything I was doing was wrong. Angry that I’d looked to someone else for my stability, to provide for me, when I could have done it for myself all along. And I was angry that I was made to believe my labor wasn’t enough—when the reality was it just wasn’t valued.

In my relationship, money had been a trap, but when I had the support and the equality I needed, I finally could earn enough that money became my freedom.

Contact us at letters@time.com.